Orange Bowl

Gators' Quickness and Athleticism Too Much for Aggies

 
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The Gators jumped out to a quick 18-2 lead and maintained their dominance throughout the game.
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SUNRISE, FL. - Texas A&M plays defense the way its supposed to be played. That was the message. Florida came here this weekend having been told -- probably ad nauseum -- how the Aggies would harass and hound and haunt them all the way to South Beach, would make life absolutely miserable on the Gators in the half court and make 3-point shots seem like half-court shots. 

"That’s all we heard about," UF forward Erik Murphy said of an A&M team that ranked second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense and were allowing 51.4 points per game, including just 44 over the last five games. "They (UF coaches) shoved it in our faces all week." 

But guess whose defense did the shoving Saturday at BankAtlantic Centerω 

Those 51 pointsω The Gators had 50 by halftime. 

That 33.4-percent field-goal defenseω That 28.8-percent defense from the arcω The Gators hit 55 percent and seven 3-pointers before intermission. 

"I thought the first half was the best we played all year," Coach Billy Donovan said. 

And it set the tone for the 13th-ranked Gators to stomp the No. 22 Aggies 84-64 in the annual MetroPCS Orange Bowl Classic before a happy crowd of 11,262 that witnessed UF’s finest overall performance of the young 2011-12 season. 

Junior guard Kenny Boynton, who starred five miles from here at American Heritage High, scored 22 points, including 6-for-12 from distance, in leading Florida (8-2) to its first win in three games against ranked opponents this season. Senior point guard Erving Walker and freshman forward Bradley Beal were each good for 16 points and Murphy, the junior who missed three games earlier this month with a knee bruise, returned to the starting lineup to post 13 points and five rebounds. 

Those are all good numbers, but the defensive digits UF slapped on A&M (8-2) told a bigger and better story -- and one Donovan would love to nurture going forward. 

Challenged to give the Aggies what they’re used to giving opponents, the Gators were stifling on defense to open the game, failing to surrender a field goal until forward Khris Middleton threw in a reverse layup at the 11:59 mark of the first half.

That cut Florida’s early lead to 18-4. 

"I looked up at the scoreboard at one points it was 20-4," Murphy said. "I was like, ‘Wow! We must be playing some pretty good defense.’ "

Imagine what the Aggies were saying when they went to the locker room trailing 50-25 at halftime, had missed all four of their 3-pointers and had 10 turnovers.  

The Gators weren't nearly as sharp or on-point in the second half, but they didn’t have to be, either, because they played so spectacularly in the first. 

"Their quickness and athleticism gave us a lot of problems," A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. "That’s why they’re one of the better teams in the country. Their three guards are experienced and very good offensively and create havoc defensively, and that’s why they’re so difficult to play." 

The least experienced of those guards, Beal, certainly took the run-up talk of the Aggies’ defense to heart. Beal had three steals and the blocked shot of the day on a sheer, all-out hustle play on an A&M breakaway in the second half. 

"We just came out really aggressive," Beal said. "A team like that, you have to try to punch ‘em in the mouth, like they say, and be really physical with them and try to get a jump on them. Our defense was just killing them from the start." 

As great defense usually does, it created offense, especially transition opportunities the Gators were able to convert or take advantage of by attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line. Instead of hitting 59.6 percent like UF had done all season from the stripe, the Gators went 23-30 (nearly 77 percent) Saturday. That collective effort also helped stave off what little threat -- the Aggies managed to cut the margin to 12 with 2:12 left -- that Texas A&M put up. 

"We’re a better free-throw shooting team than our stats show," Donovan said. 

The Gators were the best all-around team they’ve been all season Saturday. That’s something to build on. 

"I think what we have to do now is play a complete game -- first half and second half," said Boynton, who was named the game’s MVP for the second straight season. "We’re passing the ball great. We have great execution. And now we’re starting to play great defense."

 

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